Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 Season Preview

 


       It must not be too fun to be a Sabres fan. The team has the longest playoff drought in the sport, for starters. There were some Jack Eichel trade rumors this offseason, and the team also was moved into the toughest division in the league, the East. Now, there are no Senators or Red Wings to beat down on. At least they were able to make Eichel happy by signing Taylor Hall, but who knows how long that will last.

Additions: F Taylor Hall, F Eric Staal, F Cody Eakin, F Tobias Rieder, D Matt Irwin.

Subtractions: F Marcus Johansson, F Jimmy Vesey, F Dominik Kahun, F Wayne Simmonds, F Michael Frolik.

Best Move: Acquiring Eric Staal for Marcus Johansson.

Worst Move: Letting Johan Larsson walk and signing Zemgus Girgensons and Cody Eakin.

Best Contract: Jack Eichel, six years remaining with a cap hit of $10 million.

Worst Contract: Kyle Okposo, three years remaining with a cap hit of $6 million. 

One Move I'd Make: Trade D Rasmus Ristolainen.

New Division Rivals: Boston, New Jersey, Islanders, Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington.

Pending UFAs: Taylor Hall, Linus Ullmark, Carter Hutton, Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe, Matt Irwin, Tobias Rieder

Pending RFAs: Rasmus Dahlin, Sam Reinhart, Henri Jokijarju.

Current RFAs: Casey Mittelstadt, Lawrence Pilut. 


Forwards

There really isn't much of a question on who the best player on the Sabres is. Jack Eichel has led the team since being drafted in 2015, although there really wasn't any help to lead them anywhere. Eichel eclipsed the 30 goal mark for the first time in 2019-20, with 36. While he didn't set a career high in points, 78 points in 68 games meant a career high 1.15 points per game. The Sabres were able to sign top free agent Taylor Hall to a cheap one year, $8 million deal. Hall is coming off one his worst seasons, but still scored 16 goals with 52 points in 65 games. The two years prior he averaged over a point per game, and playing on Eichel's wing will only help him. Between Eichel's two linemates last year, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, only one will remain on the center's wing. Reinhart should get the nod, while both would be on the top power play unit. He scored 22 goals with 50 points in 69 games, reaching the 50 point mark for the third consecutive season. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Sabres want him to drive his own line. Olofsson came in and finished 7th in Calder voting. He scored 20 goals in only 54 games, with 11 of them coming on the power play. Jeff Skinner scored 40 goals in his first year with Eichel, but the rise of Olofsson led to the fall of Skinner, who was demoted to the second line. Skinner scored just 14 goals, his lowest since the shortened 2012-13 season, and only added nine assists to that. He will now have a new center, former Hurricanes teammate Eric Staal. Only two years removed from a 42 goal season, the Sabres should expect something similar to Staal's 19 goals and 47 points in 2019-20, albeit that was in 66 games. 19 year old Dylan Cozens is the biggest prospect for Buffalo. In 51 WHL games last year, Cozens scored 38 goals with 47 assists for 85 points. It's safe to say he is NHL ready. Cozens is a center but he'll play the wing to start. Cody Eakin scored 22 goals in 2018-19, but then fell off, especially analytically. Eakin scored five goals with 15 points total in 49 games. Bringing in Eakin and re-signing Zemgus Girgensons was a questionable move when the Sabres let Johan Larsson, a very good defensive center, walk to Arizona. Girgensons' 12 goals and 19 points were his highest since 2014-15. Two former first round picks, Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt, have really fallen off in the NHL. Thompson played in just one game for the Sabres last year, and had 12 points in 16 AHL games. After having only nine points in 31 games, Mittelstadt was also demoted, and he had 25 points in 36 AHL games. Kyle Okposo was paid to be a top-six winger, but he has accepted a role as a stable fourth liner in Buffalo. His 19 points were the lowest of his career, and nine of them were goals. One of the many former first rounders with lost potential on the Sabres, Curtis Lazar turned his career around a little bit in Buffalo, with 10 points in 38 games. The Sabres signed Tobias Rieder, a winger who had the same amount of points as Lazar, but in 55 games. Former second rounder Rasmus Asplund could use time in the AHL. He debuted in 2019-20, with three points in 29 games, and he killed penalties. 

Defensemen

Trade rumors have said that the Sabres have had the chance to deal Rasmus Ristolainen in the past few years. They probably should, considering they have a lot of defensemen, especially on the right side, but also because of Ristolainen himself. He consistently has a terrible +/- rating, and has a career CF% of 44.8, which is well below average. He gets a lot of ice time, but he's also the perfect example of a player getting too much ice time. I think that a defensive defenseman like Jake McCabe, who had an above average CF% last year, would be a nice fit for Ristolainen's partner. The key to this D-core starts and ends with the other Rasmus. Rasmus Dahlin has been really good for the Sabres in his short two year career. He didn't get talked about much in 2019-20, but even despite an ice time decrease of about two minutes a game, Dahlin finished with 40 points in 59 games. That is .68 points per game, a big improvement on the .54 that helped him finish third in Calder voting the year prior. After the Sabres traded a first round pick for him in 2019, Brandon Montour looked like a good fit down the stretch. His first full year in Buffalo was a down season, with 18 points in 54 games, and his first CF% rel that was negative since 2016-17. He has a lot to prove in a contract year. Colin Miller had an amazing two-year run in Vegas Corsi-wise, with his CF% hanging around 56 both years. That did decrease with the Sabres, to a respectable 49.5, which is still the lowest of his career. He had 11 points in 51 games, which means a .22 points per game, his lowest since he was a Bruin. 21 year old Henri Jokiharju came to the Sabres in a deal with Chicago that looked really good at the time but now looks better. He had 15 points in 69 games, and he also has a career CF% of 51.7. He still has time to grow. Lawrence Pilut has been a depth defenseman for the Sabres over the past two years. Overall, he has a 51 CF% with six points in 46 games. Matt Irwin has been a 6th-7th defenseman for four teams now, and the Sabres would be his 5th. He had three assists in 36 games between Nashville and Anaheim last year. Irwin is the only Sabres defenseman on the wrong side of 30. 

Goalies

A little blunder in the Sabres' offseason was the Linus Ullmark contract. Ullmark was an RFA, and the contract is reasonable, at a $2.6 million cap hit. But, the Sabres only signed him for one year, leading him to unrestricted free agency. Ullmark wasn't a full-time starter last year, but he definitely was their best option, with a .915 SV% and 2.69 GAA. He's pretty young for a starting goalie, at 27. After an insane 2017-18 with St. Louis, Carter Hutton fell off in Buffalo. He started three less games than Ullmark last year, and posted an .898 SV% with a 3.18 GAA and an ugly GSAA of -10.99. The Sabres must be confident in top goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who played well in the OHL and ECHL but hasn't fared well in his limited AHL action. 

Projected Lines

Taylor Hall - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart

Jeff Skinner - Eric Staal - Victor Olofsson

Casey Mittelstadt - Cody Eakin - Dylan Cozens 

Tage Thompson - Zemgus Girgensons - Kyle Okposo

Extras: Curtis Lazar, Tobias Rieder, Rasmus Asplund


Rasmus Dahlin - Brandon Montour

Henri Jokiharju - Colin Miller

Jake McCabe - Rasmus Ristolainen

Extras: Lawrence Pilut, Matt Irwin


Linus Ullmark

Carter Hutton


Projection

The Sabres were a well below average team when the Red Wings and Senators were in their division. Now, with a star-studded Eastern Division, which six playoff-worthy teams, the Sabres will struggle to keep up. A seventh place finish is in their future. 

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